Back to the Island

Different people recharge in different ways, of course. My wife loves to acquire old furniture and turn it into something special. I like to take pictures and strum my guitar. This Sunday I went for a walk on the beach and shot some video of the seagulls as they fished in the shallows. When they saw that a wave was going to break before it got to them they would flutter just above the wave and settle back down to resume fishing like it was no big deal. I also took some still images. As I started to piece the video and pictures together into a video I wondered what would make a nice background song. I’ve always been a fan of Jimmy Buffett’s “Back to the Island” and that song came to mind.

I had such fun last weekend learning a song that I decided to take a few hours to learn “Back to the Island” and record it. Then I added it to the soundtrack. Jimmy’s job is surely safe from any competition from me, but I found the whole project to be so satisfying. I hope you enjoy the video imagery. Remember, that if you need to you can always mute the sound!

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I Learned a New Song

I didn’t really set out for this to be my weekend project. I was looking for a place to put my hymnal and casually thumbed through it. I noticed a signature with one sharp and knew that the key of G was one I could play. So, I counted out the 1 (G), 4 (C), and 5 (D/D7) chords and thought I would give it a go. I muddled around for a bit with some success but I’m getting old and was having trouble remembering from one verse to the next what I had figured out playing through the previous time.

So, I used the Office Lens app on my phone to take a picture of the song in the hymnal (Revive Us Again) which I then imported into OneDrive as a PDF. Then I opened the PDF on my iMac in the Preview app and simply annotated it with the chords as I worked them out. Looking back, I should probably have made the first two D chords D7 chords since they had the F# in the alto line.

marked up hymnal page

Next, I went to my Casio WK6500 keyboard and tapped out the beat. By holding down the Fn key while tapping the beat on the down Tempo key, I could read the beats per minute on the display, 94 bpm. (If you don’t have a keyboard, you can do the same thing in GarageBand.) The hymn is in 3/4 time so I then went through all the rhythms on the keyboard that are in 3/4 time and picked the one I liked best with this song (Pasillo).

As I continued more deeply down the rabbit hole (remember this all started with casually thumbing through the hymnal), I decided to import the rhythm from the keyboard into GarageBand on my iMac by playing into my Blue Snowflake microphone. I know I would have been better off to play this directly into my iPad GarageBand app and then import it, but I was just a tad bit lazy here.

Next, I made a rhythm guitar track by strumming through the newly discovered chords. Sadly, I am rhythmically challenged so getting the beat to sync up with the beat from the keyboard took quite a while. But when it was done, it created a nice bedrock on which to build the other tracks.

I then went through and played first the melody and then the alto parts on my guitar for the next two tracks. To wrap up the instrumental part, I even added a very low key bass line, mostly just marking the chord changes.

Finally, I added my vocals as both lead and alto. A wee bit of volume adjustments on the tracks got me to a point where listening wasn’t too terribly painful. Finally, I added GarageBand’s pitch correction to the lead vocal. It turned out that some pretty savage correction was needed there before the mix started to sound fairly pleasant.

When all was said and done, I had worked from never having played that song to a seven track mix that wasn’t quite the most awful version of Revive Us Again that has ever been heard. (Okay, maybe it is the worst, but . . .) All-in-all, it was a very satisfying learning experience.

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Goodbye Barack, I’ll Miss You

From the first time I heard him speak as a young congressman, I knew that he had something special. Not since the great Ronald Reagan had a politician been able to communicate in such an inspirational style. As a traditionally orthodox Baptist, Barack Obama and I were bound to have differing views on subjects like abortion and freedom of religion. Our views on when it is in the country’s best interest to deploy troops into harms way is also quite different. But we share a love of country and compassion for the disenfranchised. I was especially hopeful that he would champion environmental protection to a not-yet-witnessed degree by any president.

Today is the last full day of President Obama’s eight years of service. Despite having voted for him, I have to say that there are many areas in which I am disappointed in what he did.

Barack was our first president of African-American descent. I am thrilled that my mother lived to see this milestone achieved. Her position throughout the years of civil rights unrest never wavered. I had hoped that his ascent would lead to healing and better race relations. As is always the case, changing times play a big role in a president’s legacy. Institutionalized racism had been almost a given in American culture. Long after the Jim Crow laws had been repealed and Confederate flags relegated to our backwater regions, beneath our veneer of civility, Blacks continued to receive stiffer sentences and be more likely to suffer from police brutality. Barack came to office just two years after the first iPhone. By the time he left office, it had become quite common for this hidden-to-the-majority racism to be caught on cellphone cameras and shared to the world. It is a crisis that cries out for a leader that can navigate the treacherous path between ignoring injustice to the disenfranchised and betraying those within the system who are not guilty of these abuses. We need the rule of law. We need our police. They must never doubt that we support their efforts toward enforcing the rule of law in a just manner. But our disenfranchised also need to know that black lives matter. I realize that many of our black brothers and sisters feel that our president failed to do enough to cleanse the system of its injustice. But I feel that his efforts toward that goal were so harsh on law enforcement that a climate was created in which violence against our police officers became alarmingly common. Instead of progress toward a just peace, gas was thrown on the fire. This was a crisis, but also an opportunity to help each side view things from the other’s perspective. In my opinion, this opportunity has been lost and contributed to the white working class backlash that allowed Donald Trump to limp into the White House.

This inability to see that there are other perspectives on domestic issues carried over into fueling the divisive relationship between our two parties. Barack came across to me as very arrogant in the way he related to those politicians with views that differed from his own. I would go so far as to say that he comes across as more empathetic to foreign leaders perspectives than to those of his own Congress. It is my sense that no President has done a worse job of working with those across the aisle than President Obama. Does anyone know how many bills were co-sponsored by both parties during his administration?

There are areas of foreign policy that I would also say were disappointments. After eight years, there is still no viable exit strategy for the seemingly unending wars in the Middle East. I was so hopeful that our troops would either be brought home or provided the resources that they needed to annihilate their enemies. Instead we have repeated one of the great mistakes of the Vietnam War.  We neither withdrew nor pursued victory with a full commitment of our resources. This is a great injustice upon the military whose lives are put on the line and too often in the ground in service to their Commander-in-Chief.

Further, the red line that Barack announced in Syria was ignored and the situation allowed to drag on until Assad could get help from Russia. Either our intelligence failed or our strategy failed, as Russia was allowed to overrun Crimea and then part of the Ukraine.

Our cyber security appears to have been almost an afterthought in this administration. China was allowed to steal our federal employees personnel files. Russia was empowered to hack our election and help to put someone believed to owe them large sums of money into power. Both of these large hacks followed on the heals of years of our businesses having their systems hacked. One of his last acts was to commute the sentence of Private Manning whose espionage had helped propel WikiLeaks to the forefront as a marketplace for hacked intelligence.

Two of America’s worst environmental disasters also happened on the Obama watch. The Gulf oil spill was a result of lax safety enforcement procedures. Flint’s water issues were a result of insufficient federal oversight of municipal practices. When a city has to decide between bankruptcy and safe drinking water it is time for the Feds to step up and help out.

At this point you may be thinking that I am going to be happy to see our President replaced. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don’t think we can look at the last eight years as anything but an economic triumph. The American auto industry would no longer exist if it weren’t for the leadership of this president. The push toward renewable energy and green industry have laid the groundwork for what is the inevitable economic future of the planet. Unemployment is low. Inflation is low. The growth of the national debt has slowed.

Barack played the long economic game with treaties like the Trans Pacific Partnership. A small dip in jobs today ties us to the exploding growth opportunities of Asian economies. This represents courageous and wise economic leadership, but also requires patience in order for our country to reap its benefit.

I must also point out that Obama’s FCC protected net neutrality. This policy allows everyone equal access to the internet’s information pipelines. Services like Netflix cannot be slowed down so that Comcast can serve up its competitive service with an unfair advantage to Comcast customers, for example. This has resulted in a boom of internet entertainment options like Sling TV, DirecTV Now, CBS All Access, and a more robust Hulu. I am unaware of an OMB cost-benefit analysis of this policy, but I would love to see that done.

18 million of our working class and poor now have insurance that they never had before. I know that the Affordable Care Act is a mixed blessing. Deductibles are sometimes too high for people to get that preventive medicine they should have, but that is still better than not having any backstop in the event of catastrophic illness – which is where they were before the ACA.

Perhaps my greatest joy in this administration comes in the area of public lands. President Barack Obama set aside more public lands than any previous president (UPI). Despite fierce opposition from local groups who sought to exploit those resources, our President moved to protect our national interests. He belatedly joined the world in an alliance to fight perhaps the greatest threat to our planet, global warming, when he signed the Paris Agreement.

I don’t think we have ever enjoyed a longer stretch of executive power without a hint of scandal. Even Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal. The Obama family has in many ways been a model of the kind of love, thoughtfulness, fun, and decency that we all want for our own families. This law professor was careful in what he said, recognizing that his words would impact the world. Barack Obama is a scholar and a gentleman, a President that allowed us to feel proud as he represented the United States to the World.

Why was he not succeeded by a Democrat? His failures in building bridges between races and parties. His failures to show empathy to the white working class most vulnerable to the impacts of future-looking trade deals. His inability to prevent the rise of the Islamic State. His failure to address national cyber vulnerability before our election process got hacked.

If you wonder why I’m not happy to see him go, here are some things to think about. While Donald was crafting 140 characters to tweet his opinions about Saturday Night Live, Obama authored an 84 page journal article on criminal justice. While Donald was appealing to our basest racism, Islamaphobia, homophobia, and bigotry toward those with disabilities, Obama was literally the personification of the American ideal of inclusivism. While Donald was bragging about his infidelities and sexually assaulting women, Obama championed women – especially his wife and daughters. While Donald was nominating a cabinet of billionaires with a history of racism, financial misconduct, and rife with conflicts of interest, Obama gave us eight years free from a hint of scandal. So it is with sadness that I say goodbye to President Obama. For eight years we have disagreed on many things, but I felt safe in the conviction that our President had only the best interests of our nation as a goal.

Now, we will see what happens as a group of billionaires, all of whom have a vested interest in policies that will favor the wealthy, come into power.  PBS reports that these nominees have a combined wealth in excess of the combined assets of the poorest 43 million American households – or a third of the country. It appears that they have already gone soft on Russia (Post-Gazette) because of those same financial interests despite Russia’s attempts to undermine the institutions of democracy. So, I sadly say goodbye to a good man and look fearfully to our future. It will be interesting to see how well our constitutional checks and balances work against such a nakedly self-interested executive power. I hope I am wrong. I pray that I am wrong. I pray for Donald Trump, for America, and for a world whose stability is, I believe, about to be tested in ways not seen since World War II.

Goodbye Barack, and may God bless us all.

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Tom’s 12 Days of Christmas Movies

scene from the movie Window Wonderland

I saw another list of recommended Christmas movies that started with that miserable excuse for a Christmas movie, “A Christmas Story”, and decided that I wanted to make my own list. Why am I qualified? Because no one else in history has watched as many Christmas movies, cried at the predictably happy endings as often, or looked forward to Christmas movie season with such sappy eagerness. 

December 14 – Window Wonderland (2013) Before she was the sister of Supergirl, Chyler Leigh, was an aspiring store window decorator. An opening in a coveted store brings her into competition with a talented adversary. Will this be a season for disappointment or an unexpected romance? 

December 15 – Mrs. Miracle (2009) When a single widower finds himself unable to find a nanny for his rambunctious boys, it will take a miracle to get them what they need. When their dream nanny mysteriously shows up at their door, it turns out she has a miracle not just for the boys but one for Dad, too. 

December 16 – Another Christmas Kiss (2014 Feeln or $Amazon) Not quite on the level of the other movies in this list, but still a pleasant show to snuggle up on the couch and watch. 

December 17 – One Christmas Eve ( Feeln) A new one for me, but it looks like it could be fun. 

cover from the Die Hard DVD

December 18 – Die Hard (1988 DVD) Yipee! If it’s Christmas, it’s time to break out the Blu-Ray and watch Bruce impress his Mrs. by serving up a whoopin’ for some terrorists. No, really, it is a Christmas movie. 

December 19 – If You Believe (1999 Feeln, Prime Video or DVD) If life has stomped all the child-like wonder, love, and hope out of you to the point where you wouldn’t recognize your inner child even if she showed up at your door, ‘If You Believe’ is the anti-dote. We’re really getting into the good movies, now. 

December 20 – Comfort and Joy (2003) Sure, you’re rich and have a great career.  But are you happy? Do you wonder what your life might have been like had you made different choices? Well, you know what they say about today being the first day of the rest of your life. 

December 21 – The Christmas Card (2006 Feeln, Netflix, Hulu, or DVD) A soldier goes to visit the town from which he received a Christmas card while in the field. Will he find the community, the family, the love he never had? This movie is excellent. 

movie poster from the 1940 movie Remember the Night

December 22 – Remember the Night (1940 9:45 pm Eastern on TCM or DVD) Are you really better than a common thief or did you just have a better upbringing? Could the wrong start turn even a good heart in the wrong direction for life? 

December 23 – While You Were Sleeping (1995 Netflix) What kind of woman falls in love with her fiance’s brother while he is in a coma? The best kind. Find out how that can be by watching this great movie. In some movies you fall for the hero or heroine. In this movie you fall for an entire family. I dare you not to.

DVD cover from the movie The Family Man

December 24 – The Family Man (2000 on Blu-Ray) In my opinion, this is the best of all the Christmas movies. Every actor plays the major characters in a way that should have won them all Oscars. This movie has great production values, acting, writing, and real heart. If you’re not in love with Kate by the end of the movie, then you don’t know Jack. (You might need to watch the movie to appreciate how hilarious that line is.) 

December 25 – White Christmas (1954 on Netflix) Pull back the curtains and let the snow fly. A grand Christmas tradition is to watch this movie on Christmas or Christmas eve. It’s enough to get even a weather-wuss like myself singing about snow. 

S0, I know that you have other ideas about what we should watch for the 12 days of Christmas movies, so go ahead tell me what you think. I’m always game for another Christmas movie. Merry Christmas!

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Tom’s Best Tech of 2016

fire hd 8

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-33-49-pmAmazon Fire HD 8 ($90 at Amazon) I have a longstanding antipathy toward the Fire ecosystem because it forces you to shop only through Amazon for your entertainment media. I am making an exception for the Fire HD 8 because it represents a great value and it is easily jailbroken so that the Google Play services can be added. After all, a tablet without Gmail, Google Maps, etc. Is little more than a paperweight. For the person with more hacking skills than $$$, this just might be your tablet.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-36-31-pmAcer Chromebook R 13Acer Chromebook R13 with Android apps ($400 at Best Buy). There are still some niches that Chrome OS cannot adequately address – no desktop version of Lightroom or Photoshop, no powerful video editing. Even with its Android apps, you often are getting versions of desktop apps that are hamstrung. But for everyone in my family except myself (serious photography) and my son (a professional game programmer), Chrome is the way to go. Just be sure to get a laptop that is compatible with the Google Play Store like this one. It flips over for use like a tablet, has a serviceable keyboard, and a touch screen. The HDMI, microSD, USB 3.0 (2X), and audio ports make the connectivity on this thing rival a MacBook “Pro”. Although limited to a paltry 32 GB SSD, at least you can expand that with a microSD card. If you use software that requires Windows or MacOS, you know who you are. But otherwise, you should really give the Acer Chromebook R 13 a hard look. If you already live in the Chrome browser on your current device, the transition will be as easy as falling off of a log.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-38-17-pmLenovo Yoga Book ($550 for the Windows version from Lenovo) Unlike the much more expensive iPad Pro, the Yoga Book includes a pen, a Halo keyboard, and a Wacom-powered digital drawing pad. It can even run desktop software at full strength.  Unlike an iPad Pro, this tablet starts with a Lenovo Yoga Book64 GB SSD and has a microSD slot to add an option 128 GB more. Closed, it is a slim 9.6 mm thin and weighs a mere 52 lbs (690 g). To be fair, typing on the Halo keyboard is pretty much like typing on a screen, but having the keyboard off the screen leaves your display fully visible as your type. As tablets and computers have become more and more blasé, the Yoga Book grabs our attention with real creativity. If you’re a digital artist or college student, this is your throw-it-in-my-bag-and-go device.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-40-15-pm360fly 4K Camera360fly 4K Action Camera ($500 from 360fly) Once you’ve experienced 360 degree video it is very difficult to be content with merely shooting 4K. Don’t expect professional results – those systems can run as much as $9,000. There will be a little purple fringing and softness. But the overall result is just so much more immersive than any conventional video you can shoot. The prospect of shooting with the 360fly really stirs my creative juices.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-41-54-pmYuneec BreezeYuneec Breeze Drone ($400 from the Yuneec Store) You don’t have a drone, yet? Well, get on that before the air is more crowded with drones than mosquitos. Drone enthusiasts with money to burn are more likely to get a DJI Phantom 4 Pro or some other over-$1000 drone. But for those of us who want to take some fun aerial selfies, there is this year’s unique Yuneec Breeze. It shoots 13 MP stills or 4K video and live streams 720p back to your mobile device. It has a Follow Me mode that makes a GoPro just seem a little pathetic. There’s no camera gimbal or object avoidance, but then again you don’t have to decide between buying this or buying a car.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-44-07-pmscreen-shot-2016-12-07-at-6-17-34-pmGoogle Home ($129 from the Google Store) Let’s face it. Google Home is late to the starting line. Echo has been out for a couple of years and just does a stellar job. But if all you want is to play music and have a smart voice-activated assistant, you won’t go wrong with the newer, less expensive Google Home. Google Assistant just knows more than my gal Alexa. Alexa has far more skills than this Google Home upstart. But Google Home can voice control select apps on your Google Cast which is way cool. If you have more than one, you’ve got the option to have all of them playing the same music together. I’m all in on the Echo ecosystem, but if I was just starting out, I’d bring Google Home home.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-45-53-pmDaydream VR ($79 from the Google Store) On the low-resolution Pixel, VR suffers from a marked screen door effect while watching videos. For some reason the games looked much better. But when I watched the YouTube VR video from School of Rock: You’re in the Band my mind was blown. Google Streetview VR was likewise impressive. I went down alleys in Paris and finally got to see London. The included hand controller was very good. Some of the few games were a bit buggy, like VR Karts, rendering it almost impossible to control my Kart. Another one made it possible to fly my starfighter between mountains pretty effortlessly. Of course, it is no Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but then again it doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. This is a great value.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-47-10-pmGoogle PixelPixel and Pixel XL (available from the Google Store) Every flagship phone is great these days. But I traded in my iPhone 7 for a Pixel because after having the power and flexibility of Android, iOS was a yawn. And Siri-smeery. That poor girl has nothing on Google Assistant. I also missed things like seeing my step count in a widget and arranging icons on a page where I wanted them to go. The Pixels aren’t exactly stunning in appearance, but since I put a case on it, it really doesn’t matter, because it looks fine now. But what I love about my Pixel is that it is just so fast. There is no waiting or stuttering unless I’m having a problem with my internet. The operation of this phone is plain slick. The pixel density is a bit low for use with VR on the Pixel, but I understand the XL handles it quite well.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-48-42-pmOver the Top “Cable” 2016 was the year I gave up my DVR and moved to streaming my TV shows. I tried Sling, PS Vue, and DirecTV Now. I’ll take any one of these over my cable service which also required that I rent their equipment. I finally settled on the DirecTV Now “Go Big” package, locking in its introductory rate and scoring a free Apple TV. We’ll have to see whether net neutrality is repealed under the new government. If it is, expect OTT provider costs to skyrocket and competition to die. But 2016 was gloriously liberating as competition finally came to television service providers.

 
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-5-49-36-pmAmazon Echo DotAmazon Echo Dot ($50 at Amazon) In March of this year, Amazon offered a less expensive version of their Echo. The Dot lacks the Echo’s larger speaker and larger price tag. The speaker it comes with works perfectly well and it is every bit as smart as its larger sibling. (It can be paired with a Bluetooth speaker when louder, better music is desired.)  I use it to listen to the music to which I fall asleep, tell me the weather and customized news topics for the day, control the thermostat and the TV (paired with a Logitech Hub). The $50 Dot might just be the best value in the Internet of Things. The hope for all technology is that it will actually make our lives better. I believe that having an Echo Dot will enhance the quality of your daily life. The low cost of entry democratizes the smart home assistant in a way that pretty much any one can enjoy its benefit.

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